President Hassan Rouhani and the head of Iran’s judiciary, Sadegh Larijani, have accused one another of duplicity in dealing with one of the country’s most high profile and damaging corruption cases. 

The case concerns an amount of €2.2 billion, which imprisoned businessman Babak Zanjani — who was sentenced to death in December — supposedly owes the Iranian government. Rouhani’s administration has stated that it has no interest in putting Zanjani to death and, in any case, his unpaid debt must be settled before he is executed.

But is the current battle between the head of the executive and judicial branches more about this year's forthcoming election?

After sanctions were imposed on Iran over its nuclear program, Babak Zanjani worked successfully to bypass them in order to sell Iranian oil abroad. However, Iran’s Oil Ministry reports that he has not reimbursed the government for the full amount.

As part of his public campaign against corruption, President Rouhani has asked that Zanjani be made available to the Intelligence Ministry so that his case can be investigated thoroughly, thereby also enabling the government to recoup its money. Officially, the Intelligence Ministry is responsible for national security cases like Zanjani’s. But in recent years, the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Unit (RGIU) has pushed the ministry to the sidelines and taken on Zanjani’s case itself.

Who Gained from Zanjani’s Deals? 

Rouhani’s repeated demands to command some control over Zanjani’s case clearly demonstrate his unhappiness with the way that the RGIU and Iran’s judiciary have handled the case. A number of reliable sources have told IranWire that at least one senior commander of the RGUI had supported Babak Zanjani and had some involvement with his illegal activities to bypass sanctions. Rouhani’s administration has repeatedly called for the identification and incrimination of people who formed Zanjani’s support network and benefited from his deals. 

For his part, judiciary head Sadegh Larijani has gone public with Zanjani’s claim that the billionaire had donated funds to Rouhani’s 2013 presidential campaign. Hamid Rasaei, a prominent hardliner former member of parliament, has supported Zanjani’s claim, and stated that the billionaire had contributed up to 5 billion tomans, or more than $1.5 million, to ensure Rouhani’s victory. Larijani has not mentioned a specific monetary amount, and has actually dismissed Zanjani’s assertions — but by putting this claim into the public sphere, Larijani has issued a strong warning to Rouhani: He is prepared to bring Iran’s president, and those closest to him, under scrutiny. To this end, Larijani has stated that others might be summoned in the future in connection with the Zanjani case and, if necessary, arrested. Here he is most likely referring to Rouhani’s brother Hossein Fereydoon, who hardliners have accused of receiving money from Babak Zanjani. Fereydoon’s name has also been mentioned in connection with a number of other corruption cases.

What is in Your Pocket?

In response, President Rouhani has said he will demand transparency when it comes to the judiciary’s own bank accounts, posting words to that effect on Twitter. Here he is referring to the many reports and rumors that claim Judiciary Chief Larijani holds huge bank accounts under his name to the tune of 250 billion tomans, or more than $77 million. Iranian judiciary officials, as well as Iran’s legislative branch and Rouhani’s own executive branch, have all denied the rumors, so the president’s recent tweets will go some way to rekindle rumors and create unrest within the highest ranks of the government. 

It is, however, very clear that the duel between the heads of the judiciary and the executive are not limited to bank accounts. The innuendos gain special significance as the 2017 presidential election approaches. Ahead of the election, judiciary officials are doing their best to present Rouhani and his electoral team as corrupt.

In recent years, reports of financial corruption have found a wide audience among the Iranian people — not least because the country has found itself so economically damaged by these scandals, and by sanctions. Rouhani’s government has prided itself in its fight against corruption, but now it could be forced into a defensive position if it finds itself linked to corruption cases. Any charges of financial corruption, whether online or through statements from high officials, could present Rouhani with serious challenges throughout his re-election campaign.

Despite this risk, however, Rouhani appears to be comfortable entering into a political fight with Sadegh Larijani. Among Iranian public opinion, the head of the judiciary is seen as something of a godfather to Iran’s hardliners, and he lacks popularity overall. In general, there is widespread discontent concerning the performance of the judiciary and, more specifically, over its violations of human rights and the increase of security pressures, all of which have taken place under the leadership of Sadegh Larijani. If Rouhani can be seen to be standing up to a figure viewed unfavorably by the public, it could boost his re-election chances.  

 

A Clever Tactic as the Election Nears

This kind of political duellng has a strong precedent in Iran. During the 2013 presidential election, Rouhani was able to use the unpopularity of Saeed Jalili, Chief Nuclear Negotiator under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a figure close to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, to his advantage. 

Rouhani is well versed in the psychology of the Iranian electorate. He knows that a good number of voters usually turn against a candidate or a political movement simply because they do not like what they see, and not necessarily because they approve of the other side. To put it another way, they might not have particularly favored or supported Hassan Rouhani, but they voted for him to deny Saeed Jalili victory. So far, it is not clear whether the same tactic will work in the forthcoming election — but it’s certainly not a bad idea for kickstarting Rouhani's campaign.

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